The first day of the 4-H fair week dawned, and Joe had already been busy, loading the new wooden box that held the brushes, halter, and products necessary to keep Buttercup looking beautiful. As soon as the sun peeked over the horizon, Ida and Robert were walking the rows and scrutinizing the vegetables to decide which ones to pick for the gardening display. With sunbeams lighting its yellow feathers, a meadowlark perched on a fence post and sang, “How are you today? How are you today?” in answer to the crowing of a rooster in the chicken yard. Then the meadowlark flapped its wings and flapped them again as it dipped and rose, dipped and rose, above the pasture.
Yawning, Charles came to help Joe as he led Buttercup up the chute into the pickup for the ride to Williamsport. She seemed eager to go. Having seen Francis the Talking Mule at the movie theater in Oxford and Mr. Ed on television, Joe and Charles had little difficulty imagining that Buttercup was saying, “Let’s get this show on the road! My fans await me!”
With Robert as her passenger, Ida drove the Chevrolet behind Joe’s GMC, where Charles was seated next to his father. When Joe passed the Mitchell farm, he kicked up dust on the berm as the pickup’s right tires ran just beyond the edge of the pavement. Joe was too busy looking for the Mitchells’ cow to watch the road. Russell, Roger, and Richard were loading a stylish Holstein heifer in their truck. Joe waved. Russell winked and waved back. Joe ran the tires back onto the asphalt.
When the truck and car passed Mrs. Arvin’s house on the left, Robert spotted his former teacher in her garden, and he yelled, “Hi ya, hi ya, hi ya, Mrs. Arvin!” He waved through the open window. Robert was so loud that Ida flinched, grabbed the steering wheel tightly, and pushed the throttle to the floor. The car lurched forward before Ida lifted her foot and brought the vehicle back to a normal speed. Mrs. Arvin straightened up and watched the Chevrolet as it went on down the road.
“Do you think she saw me?” Robert asked.
“Oh, she saw you alright, and she heard you, too,” Ida confirmed. When she told Joe about Robert’s outburst later, he laughed. The saying “Hi ya, hi ya, hi ya, Mrs. Arvin!” became a family quotation, repeated on seemingly endless occasions for years thereafter.
Driving the pickup with Buttercup happily watching the world go by, Joe, meanwhile, was whistling the tune to
Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Old Mrs. Leary left the lantern in the shed,
And when the cow kicked it over,
She winked her eye and said,
“It’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”
Red-winged blackbirds sitting on the passing fences chortled in harmony.
Soon enough, the pickup pulled into the fairgrounds of the county seat. Joe maneuvered his GMC into the line of trucks unloading animals to be housed in the south wing of the coliseum and livestock barn. The men in charge of the dairy exhibits assigned Buttercup the southeast corner: an ideal location! No sooner had she taken up residence in the large space than teenage girls walking past saw Buttercup and came up to pet her nose. Ida had parked in one of the regular spots along the shady road, and Robert ran to help his father and brother scatter golden straw in thick crests around and under Buttercup. Joe wrestled the show box in place just behind Buttercup. For weeks before the fair, Charles had decorated it with vibrantly colored Amish star symbols around the sides, and he had perfectly painted large green letters spelling RHODE in the center of the lid. Then he had given the box several coats of glossy varnish. It was a work of art!
Robert ran back to help his mother carry the vegetables to the aisle beneath the bleachers where the gardening exhibits were arranged. In preparation for the event, he had used marker pens, crayons, and poster board to duplicate the Great Seal of the State of Indiana. A magenta and fuschia sunrise colored hills pink and violet while a cinnamon and ginger bison leapt over a log and a woodsman swung an ax to chop an emerald and turquoise tree above aquamarine grass dotted with pale yellow flowers. The kaleidoscopic depiction hung from tiny gold chains behind Ida’s oversized cornucopia basket with a huge cabbage in its maw as beans, corn, carrots, onions, kohlrabi, and turnips poured forth in spectacular array.
Having fed and watered Buttercup, Joe sauntered down the aisle and took a close look at the competition. He felt satisfied that the Mitchell heifer might take the honors away from Buttercup.
“That heifer of yours,” Russell said, as he chewed on a straw and squinted in Joe’s direction, “will put a smile on the judge’s face.”
Joe grinned. “So will yours,” he admitted.
Russell glanced appreciatively at the better heifer of the two that his boys were going to show. “She’ll be a contender,” Russell remarked.
“With the Holstein judging as the first event tomorrow morning, we won’t have too much longer to learn what happens,” Joe said.
Russell turned to Joe. “May the best heifer win!” he said, chuckling.
In the afternoon, the whole family helped give Buttercup a bath in one of the special pens set up for such purposes. She obviously loved being shampooed and rinsed, toweled and brushed, until her coat shone.
The day passed rapidly away. At dusk, the GMC and the Chevrolet caravanned back to Pine Village. That night, Joe hardly slept a wink. At four in the morning, he sat sipping instant coffee as his mind mulled over the finer points of Buttercup and her adversary.
Charles dressed in his show clothes. He wore jeans of the purest white and a new plaid shirt with white, avocado, and light blue squares. Buttercup wore a brand new halter of shiny black leather that Joe had purchased at considerable expense.
The crowd began gathering in the coliseum. Mr. Charles Coffman slid onto the bench before the electric organ on the platform stage, smiled at the audience, and launched into a rousing rendition of “Fine and Dandy.” He completed the song with a flourish and nodded to the families seated on both sides.
Mr. John F. McKee, county extension agent, clapped his hands and strode to the microphone. “Very fine! Very fine!” he exclaimed. He adjusted his silver hair and his equally silver glasses. “Now will the 4-H members bring in their Holstein heifers.”
Roger and Richard Mitchell led their cows into the ring. Then Charles brought Buttercup, who put on her best show for the crowd—and for the judge, a professorial gentleman wearing glasses, a dazzling white shirt, and what appeared to be snakeskin boots. In all, five cows were competing in the class, two led by girls.
Wearing a printed shirt and slacks for show day, Joe stood near one of the wooden panels leading to the judging area, his arms folded and his brows drawn in what Robert called his “eagle-eyed look.” Joe’s friend, Don Akers, strode up from the hog barn. Don’s cap was pulled forward, shading his eyes. His smile, as white as his T-shirt, lit up his tanned face as he rested one foot on the bottom board of the panel and put his hands on the top board. “Well, Joe, how does she look?”
As soon as Joe had seen Don, Joe had dropped his arms, tucked his thumbs just inside the upper edges of his back pockets, and leaned forward in a characteristic posture that meant he would now give the fullest consideration to whatever Don had to say. “I think she looks good,” Joe said, grinning and blushing from having complimented his own heifer.
Don offered, “It’s a small class—”
“—but there’s strong competition,” Joe added, shaking his head with worry.
At the same instant, Joe and Don looked across at Russell Mitchell, who waved at them. With one accord, Don and Joe raised and lowered the first fingers of their right hands in the universally accepted gesture of acknowledgment.
“Russell often wins this class, doesn’t he?” Don asked.
“Yes,” Joe answered, repeating, “yes, he does.”
“Don’t you wish you could tell what the judge is thinking!” Don exclaimed. “But maybe it’s just as well that we don’t know. He might be wishing he had a coin he could flip.”
Joe laughed, removed his seed corn cap, ran his hand over his head, put his cap back on, and said, “We could give him a quarter, but people might think we were trying to bribe him.”
“What counts is what those boys and girls are learning out there,” Don said.
The judge had the 4-H members walk their heifers around the ring and then stand them. Buttercup needed no encouragement or instruction. When she walked, she strutted, and, when she stood, she posed. Passing his hands along their backs and flanks, the judge studied every detail of each cow.
He approached the platform. A hush fell throughout the coliseum. The judge pointed toward Buttercup and immediately pointed toward Richard’s heifer. “Number one and number two,” the judge barked.
Robert, who was seated beside his mother in the stands, could not be sure what the judge meant. He glanced worriedly from Ida’s face nearby to Joe’s face across the ring.
“I think Buttercup just won,” Ida said, but she was uncertain, too. From their angle, it was difficult to know which way the judge had pointed. Ida looked at Joe. He was frowning, staring straight ahead, and not moving a muscle, but Don was smiling.
The man with the ribbons in his hand stepped down from the platform and into the ring while the judge ascended the platform and strode toward the microphone.
Smiles crept across Ida’s face and Joe’s face and Robert’s face as the man with the ribbons came closer and closer to Charles. The man briefly held the champion ribbon over Buttercup’s neck before handing the coveted purple treasure to Charles, who grinned from ear to ear.
While the reserve champion ribbon went to Richard’s entry, the judge said, “These winning heifers are so nearly alike that they could be twins. It’s really splitting hairs to say there’s a difference between them. For me, it came down to personality. I like the attitude of the champion.” The judge paused; then he shrugged. “She just acts like a champion!” he declared, to the amusement of the crowd. Farm wives and farmer husbands turned toward one another and laughed heartily, nodding in agreement with the judge. “These 4-H’ers,” the judge continued, “deserve a great deal of credit for raising such fine animals, training them, and bringing them to our attention.” With that, he signaled the helpers to assist the boys and girls in leading their cows from the ring.
Robert and Ida were standing with Charles at Buttercup’s stall before Joe and Don got there. Don’s wife, Mary, came up, almost on the run.
“I was helping in the Craft Building,” Mary said, nearly out of breath, “but I caught the tail end of the judging—” Mary hesitated a second, catching her pun and adding, “so to speak. Congratulations!”
“I have the camera,” Ida said, lifting the Kodak Brownie Hawkeye to show Joe.
“Let’s take Buttercup around the corner outside where there’ll be more light,” Joe suggested.
Charles held the lead strap while Buttercup took her position with the glistening championship ribbon draped across her back. Sun dappled the white-painted building, and Buttercup’s black-and-white coat wore a velvety sheen. The heifer fluttered her long lashes; she knew she was the champion. The snapshot would be preserved for years thereafter.
“That makes it feel like all the work was worth it, doesn’t it, Charles?” Don asked.
“Yes, it does,” Charles assented, while he led Buttercup back to her stall.
“Let’s all get together for dinner in the Cafeteria Building to celebrate,” Mary said to Ida and Joe.
“Want to meet there around 11:30?” Ida asked.
“We’ll see you there!” Mary smiled. “I need to get back to the Craft Building,” she said while excusing herself and dashing away.
Don said, “Now that we know the best heifer won, I can get back to cleaning up my hog pens!” With that, Don headed down the aisle.
“The gardening exhibits should be judged by now,” Joe said.
“We’ll go see,” Ida said. She and Robert marched off to the room, which had been locked during the judging. The wire door stood open. When they walked to where the Great Seal of Indiana stood in all its glory above the cornucopia, they could not believe their eyes. A big pink rosette with the words “Reserve Sweepstakes” on it was pinned to the basketry. An older 4-H member’s exhibit had taken the sweepstakes, but, with so many entrants, being second best was the same as winning.
Even as exciting as the reserve sweepstakes in gardening was, the family felt that the most thrilling experience had been watching Buttercup win her championship.
On the way home that night, Joe silently concluded there had been other champions that day: Don and Mary.